Neurogaming Conference 2013: Expo Highlights Part 1

15 Aug

In my previous post, I talked a bit about Neurogaming in general. However, how does one even find themselves at a Neurogaming Conference? Good question, and someone should really aggregate a list of responses, because I’m sure it would be a fascinating read. Speaking for myself, earlier this year, I was searching for a project that would allow me to learn about robotics, Arduino, interactivity, etc., and I came across a book called “DIY Make a Mind-Controlled Arduino Robot.”

Lead me not into temptation

Lead me not into temptation

For $4.99, if your curiosity can resist this type of temptation, then your willpower is an order of magnitude stronger than mine. The details of this project are best discussed in a future posting, but in short, it makes use of a NeuroSky MindWave, which is a consumer-grade EEG headset priced at less than $100 that performs rudimentary analysis of your brainwaves, and interfaces with a software development environment and an “app store” featuring games, brain training, interactive films, etc. It didn’t take long to discover that there is a thriving community of makers, researchers, artists, and hobbyists who are actively monkeying around with these types of devices with astonishing results. From there, it didn’t take long to stumble on the conference.

The conference featured an excellent lineup of speakers participating in panels on a wide variety of topics, but in this post, I’m going to focus on the Expo. There were a modest but diverse array of exhibitors ranging from EEG headset manufacturers to research organizations to gaming startups to the city of Helsinki which apparently has a high concentration of both the gaming industry (Angry Birds) and neuroscience, go figure. For my part, my body was just moving my head around the room trying to figure out what I could plug it into, so here are some of the highlights.

If you look closely, you can see the headset

If you look closely, you can see the headset

Puzzlebox: The Puzzlebox booth allowed visitors to test-fly their Orbit product, which is a small helicopter that you can control with your brain using a NeuroSky headset. Because I had some prior experience with this type of headset, I was able to sustain flight for approx. 20 seconds on my first try. At this point, the level of control is essentially limited to on/off, or in this case fly/don’t fly. From what I understand about NeuroSky’s platform, it would be tricky to develop a product that you could both fly AND direct (e.g., turn right, turn left, etc.). The employee at the booth told me that they are planning to release additional functionality in the form of software upgrades to combat the trend of planned obsolescence that seems to be the norm in toys (and pretty much everything else) these days. She also mentioned that the founder had designed a mind-controlled pyrokinetic installation, but that it wasn’t quite ready for public consumption. So, basically, you’re one EEG headset away from recreating Stephen King’s Firestarter in the comfort of your own home. On a serious note, there is clearly a lot of creativity and energy at this company, and I have a lot of respect for their commitment to maintaining the value in their products through periodic updates. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

Foc.us: The founders of this company were among the friendliest people at the whole conference. They market a different sort of headset. Rather than trying to figure out what electrical signals are being generated by your brain, their device actually stimulates your brain using a method called transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS). The foc.us is marketed toward gamers, but the technique has a history of therapeutic application and as a cognitive aid. This device is unregulated by the FDA and was essentially self-funded, but when you think about the things that are FDA-approved and funded by institutional capital, you quickly realize how this might actually be a good thing. So I tried it. The guys advised that you probably shouldn’t use it for more than 40 minutes in 1 day. I wore it for about 7 minutes., and probably would have kept going, but there were people waiting. The sensation can best be described as “prickly,” and lives in a grey area between “annoying” and “not quite painful.”

I'll take this over Olestra any day

I’ll take this over Olestra any day

It reminded me of how I feel about exercise — you’re basically lying to yourself if you think that it feels good, but you exert a temporary override on your subjective definition of “tolerable.” So did it do anything? I’m glad that I tried it, but it’s difficult to get a handle on the effects after only one trial. I do know that while I was wearing it, I was talking the founders’ ears off by providing them unsolicited business advice about the product. They seemed like good ideas at the time! I want to say that I felt a little bit more tuned in and focused afterward, but in the interest of full disclosure, it was evening, and I realized the bar had just opened. Generally, it’s exciting to see technology that was previously the domain of medical research and military training make its way into the mainstream.

In my next post, I’ll share a few more mind-blowing highlights and more about the bar.

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